Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Anticipative defense is key for Hokies

BLACKSBURG -- He couldn't catch his breath.

Not because of physical exertion -- that wasn't much different than practice -- but because of everything else. The cameras. The noise.

The consequences.

Only one Virginia Tech starter played more defensive snaps last season than cornerback Rashad Carmichael. By the end of the year, he exhibited all the attributes of a strong team leader -- confidence, intelligence, reliability.

But in the opener against Alabama, he didn't recognize himself.

"I thought I was ready," he says. "It's just different, man. It's different getting out there, knowing you're on TV, knowing everybody's watching. That whole Alabama game I was tired from breathing so hard, trying not to make a mistake."

At Tech, they call this the difference between playing reactive defense and anticipative defense. And it's the biggest question facing this team heading into 2010: Just how long does it take a new starter to go from reactive to anticipative?

In Carmichael's case, the answer was one game. He was fine by the next week against Marshall.

But the problem facing Eddie Whitley and Jayron Hosley and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and Chris Drager and Kwamaine Battle and Steven Friday and Bruce Taylor -- all projected first-time starters on defense -- is that the Hokies can't wait until Week 2.

Most of those guys own similar resumes to the one Carmichael had heading into last year. They've played some as backups and have seen a lot of time on special teams.

They think they're ready, or at least think they will be by opening night, Sept. 6.

"Coming in now, I feel more comfortable out there on defense," said Gouveia-Winslow, a redshirt sophomore who tops the depth chart at outside linebacker. "I can make my calls, check off. I don't have to rely on other people making calls; I know what I'm doing now. I'm definitely trying to play anticipative football and get my game better."

Tech coach Frank Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster don't disagree on much, but they seem to on Inexperience Theory. Twice this preseason, Beamer has argued that it's easier -- not easy, mind you, but easier -- for an unpolished defensive player to make an immediate impact than it would be for a fledgling offensive player.

"I think offensively you've got to fit, you know?" Beamer said. "You've got to know where that receiver's going to make his break and [the quarterback's] got to throw it on time and you've got to protect. It's more working with other people.

"I think defensively, if you can beat a block and get to the ballcarrier, it's a big play. I think you've got a little more chance of being an individual."

This all seems to make sense. Until you talk to the defenders.

"I don't always agree with that," Foster said. "You don't know the snap count. You don't know where the play's going. You don't know if it's run or pass. You've got to react and you're always a step behind the 8-ball.

"If you're not sharp, then the offense will always have the advantage. That's why there's a lot of offense out there nowadays."

And that's why Carmichael and the other returning starters are doing all they can to prepare the younger players. They watched film together this summer. They study the playbooks together. They communicate constantly on the practice field.

Still, "there's nothing like game-time experience," Carmichael said. "It's going to take a game or two. But I do think we have a good mixture of experience and talent. Guys like myself need to bring those younger guys up to our level."

The Hokies have two more scrimmages scheduled to try to hasten that process. But the classroom work we don't see could be just as vital.

"You've got to be a smart guy to play major college football," Foster said. "The old adage of the old dumb jock and all that stuff? You can do that. You're going to get weeded out here. ...

"We're not a simple defense. We hope we look simple, but we're very complex in a lot of things that we do, and you've got to be able to make split-second decisions. Effort's half the battle, but doing it the right way and doing your assignment, that's the other half. You can't have just one or the other."

If you do, you wind up out of breath and out on an island -- neither of which Tech can afford.

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